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Should families use their cars less?

Should families use their cars less?

Cars represent one of the biggest expenses most families face, and they’re central to the way many households tick - but should they use them less?

Moves to reduce family car use

For years there have been pushes to get us all to reduce our reliance on vehicles, but now some of those moves are becoming more robust - particularly in the form of an increasing number of car bans around schools at dropping-off time.

We take a look at the rising pressure for families to cut the car out of the school run and at the wider considerations families have to make in relation to their vehicles.

School run car crackdown


Across the UK an increasing number of schemes are being rolled out to prevent parents driving children to the school gate.

Local authorities are shutting those roads closest to schools off to the majority of traffic during the morning and afternoon school runs.

Schemes have sprung up in Solihull in the West Midlands, parts of London, including Croydon, Hackney and Camden, as well as in Edinburgh and Glasgow.

Local authorities say the schemes aim to encourage a shift from car use as well as improving safety for children and air quality.

What’s wrong with driving kids to school?

Schools across the country deal with daily complaints from local residents about problem parking by parents.

On top of the problems caused by too many cars bunching at the school gate, there are also pollution problems.

London’s new Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ), introduced in April 2019, was partly prompted by the desire to protect children in the city, Transport for London has said. The ULEZ imposes an additional daily charge on motorists who drive certain types of higher polluting vehicles in central London, where 360 schools are in areas exceeding safe legal pollution levels.

A March 2019 Public Health England report - Review of interventions to improve outdoor air quality and public health - pointed to a lack of awareness about the impact on health from air pollution within vulnerable groups, including school children. It recommended a focussed approach on reducing the impact of air pollution on children, including introducing ‘no-idling’ zones outside schools.

360 London schools are in areas where pollution levels are unsafe

Rising number of car bans around schools

Many authorities are going a step further than no-idling zones by banning cars in the streets directly around schools during 9am and 3pm.

Croydon Borough Council launched pedestrian zones, known as ‘School Streets’, around three schools in 2017. It is proposing introducing a further eight from September 2019.

Permits are issued to allow certain exceptions to the rules, such as for local residents, utility vehicles and parents with mobility issues, but regular motorists can face fines of up to £130 for driving in the area at restricted times.

When the 2017 schemes were launched, residents of streets around the traffic exclusion zone said the problem had been pushed into their neighbourhoods, with parents parking there instead, but the borough council feels the schemes are a success.

Stuart King

Cabinet Lead for Environment and Transport

“The three School Streets we introduced in 2017 have been a huge success and brought real benefits to their communities.

“We want to work with schools and residents to make these next schemes as successful as their award-winning predecessors.

“The three School Streets led to 250 fewer children travelling to school by car with most of them walking, cycling or scooting to school instead.”

Pedestrian zones around Glasgow schools

In February, Glasgow City Council announced it would trial car-free zones around seven of its primary schools. "The push for the pilot programme follows a series of concerns such as poor and risky driving outside schools, obstructive parking that forces pupils on to the road as well as the issues created by congestion and harmful emissions."

Are school car bans here to stay?

Banning cars around schools may prove a success in some areas but there are downsides too. Working parents, for example, are often tight for time and need to get to the office. They might also be juggling responsibilities of caring for younger children and older relatives too.

Dr Tim Schwanen

Director of the Transport Studies Unit at the University of Oxford

“There is a lot of debate about banning cars around school grounds. I fully support that, but one of the things that needs to be taken into account is what that means about parents’ daily schedules.

“There is a broader point about blame. It is easy to blame certain behaviours but in quite a few contexts parents don’t really have a choice, don’t perceive they have a choice or making a different choice would have ramifications.”

A headteacher’s view

Bill Lord

Headteacher at Long Sutton Primary School

"In the three schools I have worked in there have been varying issues with drop-offs and pick-ups.

“In two of the cases, this was caused by schools built in the 1980s being placed on corners by planners with little thought of those dropping off children. With both of these schools there was also no planning made for school expansion. Long Sutton Primary has grown from 250 to currently 425 pupils with potential for more to come.

“We are also in a world where an increasing number of parents are rushing off to work and so do not feel that they can park a distance from the school and walk. I am aware that there are many businesses that allow flexi time but this is not as prevalent in our area.

“At the third school we had two bus runs for the children living in surrounding villages, which did help.

“As a school, we encourage children to walk but it is hard to get parents to park in the free car park that's about half a mile away when they can park on the roadside nearer school.

“We have put a voluntary one-way system in place so that children are able to get out of their cars by the pavement.

“In addition, we have a lot of families who live short distances from schools that aren't walkable but which do not qualify for transport, forcing parents to drop off.”

What teachers think of car bans around schools

It seems teachers broadly are pretty reticent about the notion of banning cars around school.

Teacher Tapp - a polling app for people in the profession - asked its panel of teachers what reaction they’d expect to the introduction of a ‘School Street’ car ban around their school.

Of the 3,663 who responded (on March 25, 2019) 43% of teachers thought parents would complain and 35% believed most parents would not welcome it.

"43% of teachers think parents would complain if cars were banned around their school and 35% feel most parents wouldn't welcome a ban"

Third of parents rely on cars for the school run

Attitudes and behaviours would have to undergo a massive change to see parents ditching the car for the school run.

Department for Transport statistics state that, since records began in 1995, the percentage of school trips made by car or van has consistently been between 30% and 35%. The majority of children do still walk to school, with walking accounting for 43% to 49% of trips.

For children aged five to 10, travelling by car or van to school is more prevalent than those aged 11-16. For the younger age bracket, the figure has consistently been between 37% and 44%. For the older children, it has remained between 20% and 26%.

Walking is shown to represent the highest percentage of trips to school in regions across England, with car/van trips to be the second highest. This is only different for those who live in ‘rural villages, a hamlet or an isolated dwelling’ which sees car/van trips increasing to 52% in 2016/17 and walking down to 15%.

Costing our short car journeys

According to the charity Sustrans, which works to make it easier for people to walk and cycle, billions could be saved by motorists and the country if people made fewer short car journeys.

Sustrans research found only two of five short journeys (under five miles) are made by foot, bike or public transport.

The charity said if four out of five short journeys were made by those means, the savings in running a car could total £279 per year per driver.

If you made four out of five short journeys on foot or by bicycle you could save up to £279 per year!

Sustrans discovered:

  • Up to £279 a year per driver could be saved in fuel costs, car maintenance and parking, if four out of five short journeys were made by foot, bike or public transport. This totals £8.5 billion for all British drivers.
  • Each car user makes 464 short journeys, covering a distance of over 1,200 miles a year.
  • 11% of short car journeys are under one mile, 29% are from one to under two miles and 60% are from two to five miles.
  • The cost of short journeys to society, including factors such as road accidents, infrastructure, traffic jams and air quality, is £750 per car user or £23 billion for Britain.
  • 15,000 lives could be saved through increased physical activity if more short journeys were made on foot or by bike, equivalent to £20 billion.
  • Over a third (37.5%) of the commuting trips made by car are short journeys, costing British drivers £2bn a year, with the cost to society being nearly £3.5bn a year.

Chris Bennett

Head of behaviour change at Sustrans

“Getting out of the car, and cycling, scooting or walking as a family is a great way to spend more quality time together, be healthy, and save money. And the school run is a great place to start.

“This is because the average journey to school is 1.6 miles, a 20-minute walk or scoot, or 10-minute bike ride. In lots of cases, this can be quicker and more convenient than driving.

“Travelling actively on the way to school is a great opportunity for children to learn about their local area, develop wider social networks and gain independence. Plus it’s great for their mental and physical health, with teachers finding that pupils who walk and cycle arrive at school more relaxed, alert and ready to start the day than those who are driven.

“There are also significant environmental benefits, as walking, cycling and scooting play a role in reducing congestion and air pollution outside the school gates.”

Family car reduction schemes

Elitis, the urban mobility specialist, has reported on a string of European schemes designed to cut family car use in the past 20 years.

Between 2002 and 2007, a scheme in the Flanders region of Belgium reportedly saw 10,000 families a year exchanging their car for free public transport travel. Families were given a three-year free public transport pass in exchange for giving up the family car.

Another initiative in Belgium saw a building contractor giving home buyers access to a shared car in a bid to reduce second car ownership and parking issues.

In 2006, London’s then mayor Ken Livingstone claimed 40% of 14 and 15-year-olds said they were travelling less by car as a result of free bus and tram travel in the city.

The view of a mum who went car free for a year

Cliony Brophy, of Dublin, and her family decided to try living car-free after their car became too expensive to repair.

She said: “When we looked at how we used our car we realised, like a lot of people, a lot of the journeys were to the local supermarket, playground and swimming pool - all within a mile.

“We set ourselves the challenge of not having a car and decided we would try it. The children were three and five at the time and I was able to have them both on a bike with me.

“My husband already had an electric bike he used to commute to work and we got another one for me and the children.

“We could order our shopping online and, for longer journeys or when we needed a boot, renting a car was always part of the plan, though it wasn’t something we did too often.

“The experience of living without a car was great and pretty much how we thought it would be. I lost a lot of weight that year!

“As the children got older it got more difficult. They were too big for my bike and too small to go a reasonable distance on their own.

“It was a big ask to cycle to taekwondo in the dark. Then if friends invited us to a play centre or something we sometimes found it would just take too long on public transport - perhaps we could get there but not back. We were finding ourselves not going to things.

“I do wish we didn’t have to get a car but public transport often took too much time or was too difficult.

“I have slipped back into using the car for shorter journeys again and we hope, as soon as our circumstances allow, to get an electric car, which will be better for those one and two-mile trips.”

What transport costs families

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) report Family spending in the UK: April 2017 to March 2018 showed ‘transport’ accounts for the biggest chunk of the average household’s weekly expenditure. It accounts for £80.80 or 14% of a household’s average total weekly outlay.

That is split down as £33.20 per week on ‘operation of personal transport,’ £27.90 per week on ‘purchase of vehicles’ and £19.70 on ‘transport services’.

An ONS report on Expenditure of households with children also shows transport to be the highest spend category at £94.70 on average. Higher earning families spent more on transport than those with lower earnings, the figures showed. For lower earners food and housing are higher spends but transport remains in the top four areas of expenditure.

When the kids start driving themselves

For those moving on from the days of the school run into a time where teens are beginning to drive for themselves, there are a raft of other things to consider, not least their safety.

A fifth of all those killed or seriously injured on our roads are aged between 17 and 24, according to a recent Department for Transport report.

Road safety charity Brake refers to research that shows 16-17 year-old drivers are 62% less likely to die in a crash when carrying older adult passengers. They’re up to four times more likely to die in a crash when carrying young passengers.

Some car manufacturers have developed technology to try to increase the safety of teen drivers by emulating the extra caution they might use with an adult in the car. For example, Ford MyKey allows parents to programme the car key they give to their teen to restrict the maximum speed of the car, maximum volume of the radio and issue reminders about seat belt fastening.

There is some research to suggest safer driving is also encouraged by telematics insurance policies, which monitor driving behaviour and require certain standards to ensure lowest premiums. Data from research analysts LexisNexis shows the number of young drivers killed or seriously injured in road traffic accidents has dropped 35% since 2011 from 18,529 to 11,984. That fall is more than twice the rate of the drop for the general population (16%).

Director Graham Gordon said: “Our analysis and interpretation of the publicly-available road casualty statistics factors for key road safety advances, such as improved roads, better junction design and new car safety technology.

“But the patent downward trend in the 17-19 age bracket points to an additional factor at play: the increasing availability and adoption of telematics insurance.

“Young drivers remain the riskiest drivers on our roads, but the insurance sector deserves a great deal of credit for developing an insurance product that encourages safer driving and delivers fairer pricing to young drivers based on their road behaviour.”

Saving on car insurance for your family

In terms of car insurance for your family, there are various ways to save.

Dan Huston, car insurance expert at Compare the Market, says big savings can be made by many drivers when it comes to insurance: “You may be able to cut the cost of insurance and breakdown cover dramatically by comparing prices at renewal. If you haven’t changed insurance provider for a couple of years or more, you may find that you will achieve healthy savings by making yourself a new customer at a different insurance provider.”

You can consider adding an older additional driver to the main driver’s policy - although you must be honest about who the main driver is or you could risk committing a type of insurance fraud called ‘fronting’. The main driver is the person who drives the most miles in the vehicle.

Family policies and multi-car policies are also options. For those who need short-term periods of cover, for students home for the holidays, for example, short-term or temporary policies are available.

Choosing a car in a low insurance group will also help to keep costs down.

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